Mate Dragigevich | Orchardist

Oratia, West Auckland, New Zealand, March 2012

"The orchard holds lots of memories for me about the traditions of my family’s life here.…” more words below images“

Mate Dragigevich Orchardist | Oratia, West Auckland, New Zealand, March 2012

My grandfather emigrated to NZ in the 1920s and worked up North as a gumdigger and on the railways. It was pretty poor in Croatia in those days and everybody just worked on the land – it was subsistence living so everyone knew about growing. He took over the orchard in 1953, him and his brothers were into following the horses and so they saw buying these 27 acres of land as security.  It was passed on to my father George and his brother Mile or ‘Bushy’ as we called him – he never brushed his hair. They turned out to be hard workers and they made a good go of it.

It was always busy here when I was a boy, there was picking, packing and pruning to do – I used to collect up all the pruned twigs.

It was a good life - it was all we knew. Our social life revolved around the fruit season. The orchard always came first, it had to be kept going. You couldn’t just take a holiday. Christmas was always a big time, the whole family would get together and there would be heaps of cousins and uncles.  It was quite a close community – with local dances in the Settler’s hall that was built by all the local fruit growers.

My father didn’t want me to do this but he passed on when I was 17 and so I took over the orchard with my mother Karmela.

We grow really good apples, they like the clay soil – Granny Smiths are especially good. We get problems with the native brown beetle which marks the skin of the fruit. They are hard to control and you can’t do much about them unless you want to spray poison every two weeks and kill everything else.

I do most of the work in the orchard myself – it can be tiring and it takes a toll on your back and joints. It’s a hard job. Mum helps me out in the shop.

People still buy directly from us and I think these days they do so because they value fresh, reasonably priced local produce – seems to be a bit of a big thing. I don’t know if its any better when it comes from the hand of the peasant!

Its nice to know when you have grown something that’s really good and see people appreciate it and have them tell you so. Knowing that its down to your efforts.

Autumn is my favourite season as I am just getting through harvest and I can start to relax. I like to be out in the orchard early morning when its cooler and quieter and the birds are out. We get a lot of Pheasnts, quails, pukekos, thrushes, starlings and waxeyes so there is a fair amount of bird damage. Other than netting the grapes we don’t frighten them away. I don’t let people shoot on the land.

We finish picking apples in May and keep them in a cold store where they’ll last until September. If you want to store apples well, keep them somewhere cool and dark with plenty of air movement. This used to be done somewhere on the south side of a house – like a wash house, when we still had them!

If you want to grow apples and you have slightly sticky soil then a tip is to raise them up. Plant them on a mound with the crown a bit higher than usual, this should stop them from getting wet feet. You might have to water them in the first year though. Its always worth choosing a variety that suits your soil and your area.

The orchard holds lots of memories for me about the traditions of my family’s life here. I can still see my old man and my uncles as I walk around. It was definitely a family thing to be orchardists but now many have passed away and moved on. My kids aren’t into doing this, they are at Uni or working in technology. They are not interested in this kind of work. I will go for as long as I can and then maybe someone else will take over.